When Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool was translated, I shelved it after other reviewers said it was too much like The Dinner. I don’t mind authors who cling to one style (see: Benioff, see also: Tyler), but I’ve learned that a long gap between their books leads to a less predictable reading experience. Though their plots are different, The Dinner and Summer House share a similar narrator and voice. If you like one then you’ll like the other, but The Dinner wins out for its clever construction and concision.
Summer House begins as Mark Schlosser is accused of malpractice in the death of his celebrity patient, Ralph Maier. The story jumps back to the previous year when Mark and his family stayed with Ralph’s family in a luxe summer house (with swimming pool) on the Mediterranean. Ralph exudes a sleazy sexuality which he directs towards Mark’s wife and young daughters and thus earns Mark’s irritation. Given this set-up, it’s not hard to guess the reason for Mark’s animosity towards Ralph, but the specifics are slowly revealed amongst a slew of red herrings.
Mark and Ralph are both odious, but at least Mark is entertaining. He describes himself as a competent physician, but defines his success by how well he acts as a stop-gap between malingering patients and specialists:
A general practitioner’s task is simple. He doesn’t have to heal people, he only has to make sure they don’t sidestep him and make it to the specialists and the hospitals. His office is an outpost. The more people who can be stopped at the outpost, the better the practitioner is at what he does. It’s simple arithmetic. If we family doctors were to let through everyone with an itch, a spot, or a cough to a specialist or a hospital, the system would collapse entirely. (11)
And Mark accomplishes this in the minimum amount of time:
Patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention. They think I give them more attention than other doctors. But all I give them is more time. By the end of the first sixty seconds I’ve seen all I need to know. The remaining nineteen minutes I fill with attention. Or, I should say, with the illusion of attention. I ask all the usual questions. How is your son/daughter getting along? Are you sleeping better these days? Are you sure you’re not getting too much/too little to eat? I hold the stethoscope to their chests, then to their backs. Take a deep breath, I say. Now breathe out nice and slow. I don’t really listen. Or at least I try not to. (1-2)
Mark’s capable of being superficially charming which Koch pulls off to brilliant effect. Through Mark’s eyes, we watch him read people and sculpt his mannerisms and dialogue to suit their expectations. Only the reader, with a backstage pass to Mark’s internal disgust, catches the full picture. It feels like being let in on a secret.
There are a few negatives though…
Summer House should not be 387 pages. Mark’s asides illuminate his character, but there are too many of them. The writing style is swift and staccato, but the pace of the story is not. The key crisis isn’t revealed until page 257. This leaves a lot of action for the last 130 pages and makes the end feel comparatively rushed.
Mark’s a doctor because the plot wouldn’t work if he weren’t, but I don’t know why Koch opted to include medical-ish scenes that betray his lack of research. With less than 50 pages to go, I should have been eager for the story’s close, but instead I was Googling biopsies because my thoughts of “that’s not how it works!” were distractingly loud. Mark knows nothing about biopsies. Is this because Mark isn’t a specialist (something he’s sensitive about) or is it a gap in Koch’s writing? I’m going to slide the blame to Koch. While it’s possible that Mark makes a character-appropriate mistake, Koch writes that Mark’s bogus attempt at medical sabotage actually works. What now?
Further, the disease that decimates Ralph remains unnamed throughout the book. It sounds a lot like cancer. It probably is, but by not naming it, Koch robs Mark of medical lingo that might legitimize him as a doctor. Sure, the metaphors and clever one-liners are fun to read, but they don’t convince me that Mark knows his craft. The disease, which underpins the entire plot, doesn’t feel real—it feels like a poorly contrived boogeyman.
Overall: 3.4 It’s a unique book that falls short in places, but it’s ultimately worth reading.
Translation: I wouldn’t shell out for a hardback edition. It’s common in used book shops these days.